The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra lately seemed to be reverting back to the conservatism that had dominated its programming before Music Director Ward Stare's arrival. Yesterday at Kodak Hall, however, Stare and the RPO presented its boldest concert in recent memory.
The evening began with Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 22. Stare took a brisk, stately pace that at first felt odd; a slower, more contemplative tempo evoking "The Philosopher" -- nicknamed for the symphony's ponderous beginning -- seemed like it might have been more suitable. If Stare's approach to the opening movement was initially mildly bewildering, it made much more sense upon the arrival of the second movement. The movement was characterized by an effervescence and rhythmic buoyancy that could be seen as well as heard: Stare literally hopped about on the podium in harmony with the orchestra. All in all, an air of refinement permeated "The Philosopher," from the elegant phrasing to the profound sense of unity among the musicians.
The concert took a sharp turn stylistically, however, with contemporary American composer Allen Shawn's Oboe Concerto, an RPO-commissioned work making its world premiere. Shawn is a post-serialist of sorts. His angular, sometimes jagged melodies recalled the dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, even while pushing past it toward a kind of cinematic Romanticism. The music was emotionally vague, ominous even, as a shroud of harmonic fog covered the sonic landscape.
Additionally, the composition enabled oboe soloist Erik Behr -- the musician to whom Shawn dedicated the piece -- to stretch his playing chops, digging into the extremes of the instrument's range and relishing the mercurial melodies that were unpredictable and almost playful. Though the music was undeniably heady, Shawn supplied Behr with an abundance of riveting, dance-like phrases that kept things accessible for the audience.
By the third movement, the solo melodies soared where they had previously wafted just above the surface. A more hopeful sensibility emerged, even as the orchestra's accompaniment remained as harmonically murky as ever.
Shawn's Oboe Concerto is the wonkiest composition -- in the best sense of the word -- that I've ever heard the RPO perform. It's sure to please new music nerds, and this performance was proof that the Stare and company have it in them to interpret more experimental, left-of-center music that challenges audience expectation. It's too bad that next season's programming is practically devoid of anything approaching edgy or new (save for Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Higdon's Harp Concerto, respectively).
Similarly to the Haydn symphony, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony started with slow gravitas. Even as the tempo quickened and the intensity heightened, the sense of poignancy remained. Tchaikovsky's music is at its best when it's sweeping the listener away -- and there was plenty of that at work. But this symphony carries a sharper, more direct quality, both melodically and rhythmically, than in the more flowery musings of the composer's ballet music.
As it had been throughout the concert, the chemistry between Stare and the orchestra felt easy and intuitive. The fullness of sound gave the concert and element of majesty that had not been present in the works on the bill. More subtly, it was the orchestra's mastery of dynamics that truly made things click and caused Tchaikovsky's phrases to pulse with life.
An emphatically strong concert performance, here's hoping that Stare will note the spark and more consistently lead the orchestra in challenging programs that embrace the new in the coming years.